By Dr. Craig D. Reid
The Bridal Rhyme, “Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue,” will bring unbridled martial arts cinema joy to the 15th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF 2014) in So-Cal as they’ll cut the sweet and succulent wedding cake from November 6-15. An additional 140 films from 21 countries will ensure that this wedding party will have many more anniversaries to come. Film lovers Lee Ann Kim, a first generation Korean American and the executive director of the Pacific Arts Movement, Chinese American Brian Hu (SDAFF’s artistic director and fellow fan of 1970’s kung fu films), the dedicated Pac-Arts staff and the selfless league of extraordinary volunteers will guarantee that this honeymoon will never be over.
Fearless leader Kim explains how the festival keeps improving and how it keep it’s menu fresh. “Years ago, we accepted films up to two years old…that’s not good enough anymore. Now films come out a month later on DVD, On Demand and piracy issues abound…the window is small. The festival of course is always trying to do something different and together we have this vision of what this festival is starting to evolve into. It’s not just film, it’s also dialogue, multi-media. Our centerpiece film is the world premiere of the first TV episode of FRESH OF THE BOAT…such a controversial title, dealing with FOB (fresh of the boat) Chinese. No one will see this until next spring. It’ll be the first Asian American sitcom on network TV in 20 years and we have the executive producers here. And this is an important key element, because that’s when true magic happens at the festival…when the audience can have a conversation with the stars and filmmakers. Our goal is to have 75% of our films attached with conversation and dialogue.”
This year, SDAFF will be screening films at nine different locations throughout San Diego, yet another positive indicator that they’re having larger audiences. Furthermore this kind of expansion requires a strategic partnership, thus the University of California at San Diego has become SDAFF’s second home base. Kim notes, “It all comes from the response of the kind of programming we have here, and that now we go to other neighborhoods to make the festival accessible to audiences like in Encinitas and La Jolla to name a few places. Our goal is to serve the broadest audience possible. People are getting out of the habit of going to the movie theater, so we make it more convenient and compelling for them, again to see the films and meet the filmmakers.”
Let’s get to the “I dos” of the quasi-wedding vows of finding something completely different in regard to the martial arts films featured at this year’s festival.
Something Old: UZUMASA LIMELIGHT. Before the advent of Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club that was created to develop stuntmen for karate films, there were the famed kirare-yaku or drop-dead samurai film swordsmen extras employed by Kyoto’s Uzumasa Studios (“Hollywood East”) who were always killed off during chanbara movie swordfights. UZUMASA LIMELIGHT follows the career journey of the veteran extra Kamiyama, played by the renowned, real-life kirare-yaku, 71-year-old Siezo Fukumoto, and how through his eyes we see the old vanguard irreverently dismissed from 40 years of unrelenting dedication to their art, as young blood casts and filmmakers dishonorably chide their craft and replace them with unauthentic costumes and props, and CGI flummery. As Kamiyama still practices swordplay every night on the deserted sets he reluctantly accepts Iga Satsuki (Yamamoto Chihiro), a budding young female extra, who implores Kamiyama to take her on as his swordplay protégé. Her dream is to kill Kamiyama on film but the genre is fading fast as is the elderly Kamiyama.
Kim admits, “This film surprised me. American director Ken Ochiai has often submitted short films to the festival in Japanese, this is his first feature film and I loved it. I’m not a connoisseur of samurai films, but I found this story to be so interesting, about a man who spends his whole life on film perfecting the dying art of dying on samurai movies. What a beautiful story it is to give Fukumoto, who’s always been a background character, to now making him the central character. In reading an interview with Ochiai, he had a hard time directing Fukumoto because when he was in front and center of camera, his natural thing would always be to step aside and disappear. For a man that has amassed 50,000 screen deaths he is now the life of the film.”
Hu adds, “You can also learn a lot about the history of samurai film by watching how these film are made. When Fukumoto performs his death on screen, he performs them so beautifully. The movie is also a love letter by Fukumoto to this dying genre.”
Something New: YASMINE. It’s KARATE KID meet Hilary Swank but with a new twist. The film follows the high school adversities of the sweet-natured Yasmine (Liyana Uys) as she searches for a pencak silat martial arts school as a means to win over her childhood sweetheart in an upcoming silat tourney. After devoting several months of practicing kuntai, a version of silat originating from Brunei, an Islamic state on the north coast of the island of Borneo, Uys was ready for the fight choreography created by Chan Man-ching, a long time fight choreographer for Jackie Chan. The film is basically about a Muslim female learning martial arts.
Kim adds, “Talk about a film you’ve never seen before, this is also the first feature film ever produced in Brunei and for many, it will be their first glimpse into that nation. Now that is awesome.”
Something Borrowed: IN SEARCH OF WENG WENG. This is an ultra-interesting documentary about one man’s obsession who decades ago saw a bootleg videotape of the Filipino movie FOR YU’R HEIGHTS ONLY, a James Bond borrowed (rip-off) movie that starred a 2′ 9″ actor named Weng Weng as agent 00. We’ll follow director Andrew Leavold as he finds his way to the Philippines and with amazing luck and serendipity, finds himself in the right place at the right time to where he can piece together with ground breaking interviews with famous Philippine martial art film celebrities the mystery of Weng Weng. Leavold’s sheer audaciousness even helps him land a special guest invitation to the palatial home mansion of Imelda Marcos, the widow of the former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. The interviews he gets are amazing.
Hu chimes in, “When I screen films for the festival, it has to be something I’ve never seen before and is removed from a country’s cinematic stereotype. Philippine cinema has become inundated with soap operative melodramas or hyper art films, but sometimes there’s something in the middle, and IN SEARCH OF WENG WENG gives us an opportunity to talk about the Philippines and Filipino cinema in a different way. This is very exciting.”
Something Blue: BLUE BUSTAMANTE. In this Filipino comedy, George Bustamente (Joem Bascon), a nameless stuntman going nowhere lands a job on the Japanese sentai television show FORCE FIVE. Yes, it’s a MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS do-over…Filipino style…or should I say MIGHTY MORPHINE POWER RANGERS. George finds little thrill in fighting aliens and monsters and at the end of the day, it’s a delightfully charming and comedic take on non-maid Filipinos working overseas.
Kim closes, “A festival is only as good as their audience. San Diego is not a film centric community, where film is regarded as an art form. Our hope is that this community will respond and support what we do. The film festival is not just about film but the ultimate goal is to entertain, inspire and most importantly to build a compassionate society through this collection of stories. We want to expand their minds and prove that we’re all the same, and this kind of great story telling is happening all around the world.”
For a complete film schedule and screening locations, be sure to check out www.festival.SDAFF.org or www.pac-arts.org.